FRANKFORT, Ky. -- Drug overdose deaths in Kentucky soared to unprecedented levels in 2016, jumping 7.4 percent as the state continues to struggle with the scourge of prescription pills and the rise of a much more potent form of heroin.
The report from the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy comes as Republicans in Congress debate repealing former President Barack Obama’s health care law, a move that could significantly scale back a federal insurance program responsible for $109 million of substance abuse treatment in the state last year.
Kentucky was one of 31 states to expand its Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act. It added another 400,000 people to the program, slashing Kentucky’s uninsured rate from more than 20 percent to 7.5 percent. Kentucky’s Medicaid program spent $109 million on substance abuse treatment last year, and the expanded Medicaid population accounted for 60 percent of that spending.
The Senate plan would eliminate the Medicaid expansion by 2024. Republican Gov. Matt Bevin said Tuesday he reluctantly supports the Senate’s health care proposal because he said it would give the state more control over its Medicaid program. The proposal calls for giving states a set amount of money for their Medicaid programs with fewer restrictions on how to spend it.
“Our state doesn’t have the option or the luxury of not spending money on drug treatment,” Bevin said. “So of course it is still going to be a big part of how we spend Medicaid dollars.”
Dustin Pugel, a research and policy associate for the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, said while Kentucky would have more freedom it would also have less money. He said it would cost Kentucky about $405 million to keep those 400,000 people on the expanded Medicaid program. That money likely won’t be available as the state continues to deal with a multi-billion pension debt.
“The administration may say that the people get treatment when they need it, but if you don’t have coverage you don’t get care,” he said.
The report released Tuesday says Kentucky had 1,404 fatal drug overdoses in 2016, a 39 percent increase in just three years. The biggest problem was fentanyl, a synthetic version of heroin only much more powerful. Nearly half of everyone in Kentucky who died from a drug overdose last year had fentanyl in their system.
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Van Ingram, executive director of Kentucky’s Office of Drug Control Policy, said drug users will often pay more money for a name brand prescription painkiller than they would for heroin or some other opioid. He said drug dealers have begun disguising fentanyl as a prescription drug, selling it for more money to unwitting users unaware of how powerful it is.
“A great deal died thinking they were taking heroin or thinking they were taking a Xanax or Percocet,” Ingram said.
The legislature increased penalties for dealing in fentanyl earlier this year. They’ve also taken steps to limit the supply of prescription painkillers, including earlier this year when they made it illegal to prescribe people with more than a three day supply, with some exceptions.
“We’ve got to stop creating so many ... people with an opioid use disorder by accident,” Ingram said. “We’ve got to look to other means to treating pain.”